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Imperial China, Tibet & the Yangtze River 2014

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Pre-trip: Mongolia, the Gobi Desert & Kharkhorin

Discover Mongolia from the Gobi Desert, where nomadic herders still practice an ancient way of life … to the plains of Kharkhorin, where Genghis Khan once rode … and the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where modern buildings stand near Buddhist monasteries and traditional ger tents. Join us to explore this fascinating land.

It's Included:
Roundtrip international airfare between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar and 1 internal roundtrip flight between Ulaanbaatar and the Gobi Desert
Accommodations for 1 night in Beijing, 2 nights in Ulaanbaatar, 2 nights in a mountain camp, and 2 nights in a Gobi Desert camp
19 meals—7 breakfasts, 6 lunches, and 6 dinners
11 small group activities
All land transportation
Services of our own resident OAT Trip Leader
All transfers

    You depart this evening on an overnight flight to Beijing.

  • You arrive in Beijing today. You will be met at the airport by an OAT representative and transferred to your Beijing hotel for a one-night stay.

    • Meals included:
    • Accommodations:

    After breakfast at our hotel this morning, we set out for the airport for our flight to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia—a fascinating blend of ancient culture mingled with lingering vestiges of the 20th-century communist regime. Our Trip Leader for this extension will meet us upon our arrival and assist with our check-in to our hotel. We’ll enjoy our first taste of Mongolian cuisine over lunch at a local restaurant.

    Located on the banks of the mighty Tuul River, high in the Bogd Mountain range, Ulaanbaatar was founded in 1639 as a nomadic encampment and was not permanently settled until 1778. Today, it is a bustling metropolis of close to one million people and the country’s sole air and railway link to the outside world. Our exploration of Mongolia’s fascinating capital city includes ascending Zaisan Hill for panoramic views of the city (please be prepared to walk up 200 steps to the top). We'll also visit the city's hub, Sukhbaatar Square. We'll see the outsides of the Government House (state parliament building) and Stock Exchange building, which attest to the square’s importance as the political and financial center of the city. A famous statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the “hero of the revolution,” presides over the square. It was on this spot that Sukhbaatar declared Mongolia’s independence from China in 1921. Less than 70 years later, in 1989, Sukhbaatar Square was also the site of the first protests against Soviet oppression, and rallies and ceremonies are still held here today.

    We continue to the National History Museum. Here we'll become more acquainted with Mongolian history from the Stone Age to modern times. We return to our hotel this evening for dinner and time to relax and settle in.

    Please note: Due to variations in flight schedules, the flight to Ulaanbaatar sometimes takes place in the evening. When this occurs, we will have our included meals in Beijing and time at leisure to explore Beijing on our own. The city tour of Ulaanbaatar and visit to the National Museum will move to another day.

  • Today will provide a study in contrasts as we travel from Ulaanbaatar into the mountains. After breakfast, we venture overland to the red-rock Khogno Khaan Mountain, southwest of the city. A natural reserve covering 16,000 acres, this splendid sanctuary is a habitat for ibex, wolves, and many varieties of hawk, and is also renowned for its many monasteries. We’ll enjoy lunch upon arriving at our camp near the mountain. Here, we’ll gaze out over vistas of majestic mountain peaks, sandy hills, and a graceful willow grove, set near the Shiluustei River.

    We’ll also visit the tiny Ovgon monastery, nestled in the cliffs. Devastated by the invading Zanabazar army in 1640, the monastery was reopened in 1992, offering beautifully restored temples and breathtaking views across the plains. This evening, we’ll have dinner in our mountain camp, where our lodgings are in authentic Mongolian gers (also called yurts—sturdy fabric-walled dwellings like those that have housed many generations of Mongolians).

  • Today, we explore one of the most historically and archaeologically important sites in central Asia: Erdene-Zuu monastery. Built in 1586 from the ruins of Kharkhorin—the capital city built by Genghis Khan in 1220—this fascinating religious complex is a testament to Mongol architecture. At its peak, the complex boasted some 100 temples. Though most were destroyed during the Stalinist purges of 1937, three remain for our inspection. In 1962, the complex was allowed to reopen as a museum; it regained its true calling as a place of worship after the collapse of the communist regime. We travel here along the scenic Orkhon River, one of the largest rivers in the country. On arrival, we’ll find gates, walls, stupas, and temples constructed of wood, brick, blue brick, and ceramics. In the three temples, we’ll trace the course of the Buddha’s life—dedicated to his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—and view excellent collections of 16th-18th century thangkas (traditional Buddhist paintings), masks, wooden and bronze statues, and appliqué and papier-mâché images of various gods. We’ll also see how the Orkhon River was diverted to form the monastery lake.

    We stop for lunch at a restaurant in Kharkhorin, and then set out to visit a nomadic family who make their living breeding horses. It’s a rare opportunity to experience modern Mongolian life firsthand. We’ll enjoy a barbecue dinner at our camp this evening.

  • After breakfast in our mountain camp, we’ll ride back to Ulaanbaatar, arriving in time for lunch. Then we fly to the Gobi Desert.

    Mongolia’s answer to the Australian Outback, the Gobi Desert is a vast and breathtaking region with a semi-arid desert terrain that is dazzling in its variety. Seeking the fabled capital of the Kublai Khan, Marco Polo encountered this vast landscape in the 1270s and proclaimed, “It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.” Fortunately, you will be well fed as we venture into this mysterious region in south central Mongolia. Once we land, we’ll board a coach for a drive to our camp through a stunning landscape that rolls out to the horizon, and you’ll see why this region has earned the nickname “Land of the Blue Sky.” You might keep your eyes peeled for the wildlife that makes its home here, from golden eagles and saker falcons to Argali mountain sheep, goitered gazelle, and a variety of reptiles. This area is also the last refuge of wild two-humped Bactrian camels and home to the rare snow leopard and Gobi bear. We’ll have dinner in our desert camp. Then, experience the life of a nomadic herder as you spend the night in an authentic ger felt tent.

  • After breakfast at our camp, we travel to Moltsog Els and Bayanzag, a natural basin that was once an ancient inland sea and today is the setting for the Gobi’s vast sand dunes. In 1922, a team from the American Museum of Natural History, headed by Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews, defied the prevailing conventional wisdom of the time and began searching for fossils here. Amid the shifting sands, they uncovered a breakthrough in paleontology: the first nest of dinosaur eggs ever found. Dinosaur bones and prehistoric artifacts have also been unearthed here.

    While we're here, we can admire the Flaming Cliffs, nicknamed for their glowing orange hue. Out in the dunes, we’ll gain another perspective on this area—first with a visit to a Mongolian family in their home, and second from atop a camel. Lunch and dinner are at our camp, and you have the afternoon at leisure.

    • Meals included:
    • Accommodations:

    After breakfast in our Gobi camp, we’ll fly back to Ulaanbaatar and check in to our hotel. Then we’ll explore the city further, beginning with the Gandan Monastery (also known as the Gandantegchinleng Monastery), literally “Great Place of Complete Joy.” Founded in 1835, this Tibetan-style monastery is one of the few in Mongolia to have escaped destruction under Stalin’s regime. Today, the monastery has undergone a revival and is revered as a source of national pride. It also serves as the country’s center of Buddhist learning. At this cultural icon, you may hear the lowing of the horns that call the monks to prayer … catch the sounds of chanting as the devout spin prayer wheels … and watch as the more than 400 monks who reside here go about their daily rituals. A highlight of the monastery complex is its huge, gilded statue of the Buddha, and we’ll also view the Buddhist University and its surrounding temples and colleges.

    After lunch at a local restaurant, we visit the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum, founded in 1966 in a turn-of-the-20th-century, Russian-style mansion that formerly housed a Chinese bank, Russian officers’ quarters, and a department store. Here, we’ll browse among the 10,000 exhibits that include paintings, bronzes, textiles, sculptures, costumes, and prehistoric artifacts. This evening, we gather for dinner at a local restaurant with a folk music performance.

    • Meals included:

    Today after breakfast, we depart for the Ulaanbaatar airport and our flight to Beijing, where we join our fellow travelers on Day 2 of our Imperial China, Tibet & the Yangtze River adventure.